Female CEOs are held to a different standard, says Channel 4 boss

Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon on the leadership challenge faced by women, why generation Z have lost the ability to debate and why she’s always ready to take the blame

Alex Mahon Channel 4 Ceo

When people think of a chief executive, they may picture someone who is decisive, bold and strong. But for Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon, her primary role is to take the blame for others. 

“Everything’s my fault,” Mahon says, while speaking on stage at the CIPD Festival of Work. “My job is to cover the people underneath me and help them… That’s why you’re paid the most; you’re not paid the most because you’re better. You’re paid the most because you need to take responsibility and you need to be ready for that.”

This notion of responsibility is also reflected in Mahon’s attitude to decision-making. “No easy decisions should have to be made by the CEO,” she says. “All the obvious decisions should have already been made. The only decisions that a CEO should have to make are either really hard or really risky.”

While some chief executives have been candid about the loneliness this level of responsibility can come with, Mahon disagrees with this perception of the role. “It’s not a lonely job, you’re literally never alone. People even follow me to the toilet,” she says. “But it can be complicated when you’re unsure of an answer and you have to ask others what they think because people aren’t always used to that. They expect you to know the answer.”

Authentic leadership

There is also a greater expectation for business leaders to be their true selves in the workplace. “There is much more expectation for leaders to be authentic and there’s a much stronger desire from employees to know who their leaders really are,” Mahon says. “People now demand honesty from their management.”

While she believes this is a positive change, it does represent a challenge for chief executives, particularly for female CEOs, who she claims are held to a different standard than their male counterparts.

“As a female leader there are more expectations of you in the public eye and there’s more attention in the press. There’s much more interest in who you are and how you’ve managed to give birth to children,” she adds. “That’s fine if it’s helping other women but it’s probably not that interesting if it’s in the business press.”

You’re not paid the most because you’re better, you’re paid the most because you need to take responsibility

Despite improvements, gender parity at the top of business remains a long way off. Only 15% of new CEO appointments in the third quarter of 2023 were women, according to Russell Reynolds most recent CEO Turnover Index. In the FTSE 100, there were none. 

As the first female CEO of a major UK broadcaster, Mahon views it as her responsibility to help give other women, and those who aren’t equitably represented, a path to the top. Her current position also gives her unique insight into some of the problems that are perpetuating this issue.

Channel 4 has made significant progress in this area and surpassed its diversity goals for 2023. Among its top 100 earners, 54 are women and 20 come from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Across the wider organisation, 58% of the broadcaster’s workforce are women, 22% are ethnically diverse, 21% have a disability and 13% are LGBTQ+.

The next aim for Mahon is to start measuring social mobility and the number of those with care experience within Channel 4’s workforce. The company also implemented its first equity strategy earlier this year, which requires all decision-making to be informed by diverse views and calls on leaders to promote an inclusive culture. “We’re not done until organisations have equitable representation in line with the population at all levels. That seems to me to be the correct social, moral and profitability goal,” she says.

Gen Z’ s cultural challenge

While some people view the CEO as a culture-setter, Mahon says that chief executives shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing they can change a company’s culture on their own. While business leaders can “nudge along” some elements of the culture they think need tweaking, it is defined by the people within a business.

“It’s really flattering yourself to think you can just pop a couple of words on the wall in reception and then it’ll be sorted,” she says. “Channel 4 has an amazing culture and that’s partly because the people who work here love what the business does.”

No easy decisions should have to be made by the CEO

However, generation Z poses a potential upset to the cultural order. Almost one quarter of gen Z (24%) hold previous generations responsible for discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, according to Channel 4’s Beyond Z report. The report concludes that issues of identity politics and the rights of minority groups remain “one of the biggest generational divides”.

This can create issues in the workplace, Mahon says. “Gen Z are immensely liberal and defensive of people’s rights, which is lovely, but it has also created a strange kind of illiberalism,” she explains. “They have an unwillingness to debate and an unwillingness to disagree and argue.” 

Both managers and employees need to be prepared to listen to the opinions of others and have their ideas challenged, according to Mahon. “You need to be able to listen to people you don’t agree with and we need to encourage that to be acceptable in the workplace,” she adds. 

For Mahon, it all comes back to curiosity. “Curiosity leads you to show compassion for individuals; it leads you to find out what’s really happening; it leads you to learn something new and listen to other people who have different experiences to you,” she explains. If more people can demonstrate this quality, it can lead to more productive discussions in the workplace.